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Politics Mondays: E-Letter To The Washington Post And Carol M. Swain Re: "An Apology For Slavery" (July 18, 2005)

I was pleasantly surprised to hear the controversy and discussion your op-ed, "An Apology For Slavery" generated on this past Saturday morning's "Washington Journal" on C-SPAN. I paid very close attention to the arguments made by Black,White, Republican, Democratic and Independent callers regarding the political and cultural implications of your writing, which suggests that the Republican Party lead an effort that would have the United States government formally apologize for slavery. Your provocative article shows why you are one of the most important intellectuals in this country.

I viewed your piece and much of the reaction it provoked, as the latest indication and 'evidence' supporting a thesis that I have been engaging and advancing at, for over four years - that eventually, under the right circumstances, this country will be willing to negotiate a settlement or deal aimed at permanently resolving America’s racial divide. This negotiation, as I envision it, will be influenced by, and loaded with political and electoral implications. I suggest that ultimately, for very specific reasons, the country’s electorate will entrust the American Right - politically led by the GOP - with finalizing the details of any such arrangement. To learn more of what I have been putting forth, including this key point regarding a potential leadership role for the Republican Party, I ask you to read my February 13, 2001 "E-Letter To The Boston Globe And Jeff Jacoby Re: The Hefty Bill For Slavery - And Freedom"; August 16, 2001 "E-Letter To Thomas Sowell Re: Reparations"; August 27, 2001 "White Denial (Conservative, Liberal and Progressive) On Reparations Only Hardens The Hearts Of Blacks"; December 18, 2002 Republicans For Reparations; and my most recent, June 6, 2005, "E-Letter To The Hill and Jonathan E. Kaplan Re: Senator Sam Brownback and Race Relations"

What you suggest, is thoughtful, bold and practical. But I do not think it would work as cleanly as you suggest, largely because you pull up short on exploring the issue of reparations, or, as you put it:

Opponents will sometimes argue that an apology would open the door to claims for monetary reparations. But a national apology would do no such thing. To begin with, the very legality of slavery before passage of the 13th Amendment would make a claim in tort proceedings highly dubious. Then there is the problem of the statute of limitations having long expired. An additional impediment would be the absence of a living wrongdoer to prosecute. Legal precedent is against it. There is little chance that an apology would trigger the legal liability its opponents claim.

You argue this point apparently out of sensitivity for a sentiment and concern that largely dominates the White electorate on this issue. But what about how this will be perceived by the Black electorate? It is they whom you are largely aiming at with this initiative. Being willing to accept liability for slavery is the only act that will satisfy Black Americans that this is nation is accepting responsibility for the past. Managing that liability (not avoiding it) in a way that results in a solution to the race problem and which is just to both people is the key.

You make a superficial and exaggerated case for the apology-only approach when you write: "President Bush is the right man for the job. Since he cannot run for reelection, he can't be accused of pandering for votes. Because he is a born-again Christian, he can and should do this. Since most blacks are Christians, they would graciously accept the apology. By issuing an apology, President Bush could dramatically improve race relations and his party's standing among African Americans."

Your premise and conclusion might be correct but your argument is probably not the proper one. President Bush, as his excellent Goree Island speech regarding slavery shows, has the capacity to make such an apology, and his doing so "could dramatically improve race relations and his party's standing among African Americans," as you assert. But only if it is part of a larger commitment to address the legacy of what slavery produced. Without a willingness to even discuss repair, the apology will be seen as disingenuous by most Black Americans, their Christian beliefs notwithstanding.

And herein lies the rub.

Most, but not all, Republicans that I have met, seem to enjoy styling themselves as ideological purists who believe that the way you help a historically disadvantaged or discriminated individual or group is by providing equal opportunity in the present. But equality of opportunity falls short of the principle of justice and fair dealing which has no statute of limitations. I have alluded to the shortcomings of the conservative and Republican worldview juxtaposed to the principles of freedom, justice and equality in a piece I wrote in the year 2000 called, "Americanity, The State Religion". Instead of showing Blacks a clock in response to their grievances on race relations; Republicans need to consider displaying a clock, as well as a compass, which would show, in the presence of the entire American electorate, that there is a principled and pragmatic way to resolve this issue and at a time certain. The Republican Party’s best electoral opportunity on this issue is to simply do something more significant than have the Democrats. To politically outflank them on the issue of race, Republicans must expose the unwillingness of Democrats to deal substantively and effectively with the issue of ‘repair’; and the Democratic unwillingness to defer to, and support the leadership of their own Black members on the issue.

The easiest and most credible method for the GOP to accomplish this is not to simply lead an effort to have Congress apologize for slavery; but to actually support legislation put forth by Black Democrats which White Democrats have ignored, avoided or rejected. The Republicans should follow the lead of their Senator from Kansas, Sam Brownback who, immeditaely after the Trent Lott controversy in 2002, publicly stated that his Party’s leadership should consider supporting Black Caucus ‘Dean’, Rep. John Conyers’ H.R. 40 bill, which seeks : "To acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes."

What Republicans (and probably Democrats and many Blacks) don’t seem to realize is that this bill does not call for reparations, it is only a bill calling for a study of the legacy of slavery and possible avenues toward remedies. To get a view of how non-threatening and far from radical H.R. 40 really is, consider my August 26, 2002 piece, "Rev. Sharpton Hides Behind H.R. 40". You should see by how Rev. Al Sharpton skillfully used it as a buffer during a "Meet The Press" appearance, that H.R. 40 is available as a pragmatic 'middle road', for an establishment politician to walk, in order to balance the extremes on the issue of race relations, while making progress toward a solution.

White Democrats, thus far, en masse, have not supported H.R. 40, and if President Bush or the Republican Party leadership were to do so, it would expose something very peculiar about the relationship between Blacks and the Democratic Party, hence, giving you the double play you desire – a meaningful contribution to improving race relations and an opportunity for the Republican Party to make inroads with the Black electorate.

So, again, what you suggest is a positive initiative, but one that will only achieve what you advertise, if it is a tactic, and not an entire strategy.

More than an apology is required.

Keep thinking and writing.

You are on to something big, I think.


Cedric Muhammad

Cedric Muhammad

Monday, March 19, 2007

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